Saturday, March 27, 2010

New Orleans: City Park and the Esplanade Ridge Historic District

Note: I planned to publish this post on the evening of 24 March, but exhaustion overtook me and I ended up going to bed before I could finish drafting the text and preparing the images. Between traveling home on 25 March and going into the office for half a day yesterday, I simply didn't have the stamina to finish it. Now that I've recovered a bit and the cats have forgiven me for abandoning them, I've found the time and the energy to do so. I hope you enjoy it.

Today was my last full day in New Orleans, and I opted to explore New Orleans City Park and the Esplanade Ridge Historic District. I did so in part because I wanted to visit the superb New Orleans Museum of Art, which is located within City Park, but I discovered to my dismay that the museum had closed early for a special event (thanks bunches for not noting this fact on your Web site, NOMA!) I had a lovely time nonetheless.

Prior to 29 August 2005, City Park's grounds were immaculately landscaped. However, the park and the surrounding area flooded when the levees safeguarding the city failed. Although the city has been working hard to restore the park to its former glory, it still looks a bit battered. Fortunately, many of the park's live oaks survived.

New Orleans City Park is one of the nation's largest urban parks, and it has something for everyone. In addition to the usual green space, tennis courts, walking paths, and picnic facilities, it has an amusement park, a botanical garden, a model train garden that features replicas of New Orleans landmarks, and Storyland, a fairy-tale themed playground filled with children joyfully climbing in and out of Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and darting around the home of the old woman who lived in a shoe.

I spent quite a bit of time at the New Orleans Botanical Garden, which began as a rose garden built by the Works Progress Administration. The garden, which features a series of Art Deco sculptures by Louisiana artist Enrique Alférez (Renascence is pictured above) is still recovering from Katrina. Some of the trees have died and others have had to be pruned radically, and some sections of the gardens are still being restored. It's a tranquil and fragrant respite nonetheless.

I was particularly taken with this staghorn fern-lined walkway. These striking ferns apparently do quite well in New Orleans' climate.

Many of the WPA-built structures in the botanical garden are still standing. This charming little building houses the succulent collection.

After I left the Botanical Garden, I went to the New Orleans Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden, which re-opened on 20 March after an extensive renovation and wasn't affected by the closure of the museum itself. The works in the Sculpture Garden consist chiefly of modern works, but it also has a number of older, largely French, bronzes. The grounds are beautifully landscaped -- nary a trace of Katrina remains.

Several of the artists represented in the Sculpture Garden have ties to New Orleans. George Rodrigue, who has a studio in the city and whose series of paintings of blue dogs has become synonymous with the Crescent City. We Stand Together (2006) features this icon; the other facets of the sculpture consist of the same dog in the other primary colors.

Jean-Michel Othoniel’s Tree of Necklaces (2002) evokes Mardi Gras. Bead-bedecked trees are a common springtime sight in New Orleans.

Claes Oldenburg’s Safety Pin (1999) amused me. I suppose other visitors might be inspired to look at safety pins in a new light, but I’ve been fascinated by the design of safety pins ever since I was a kid.

I love Louise Bourgeois’s work, which for the most part I’ve seen in museum installations. Spider (1999) is absolutely striking in an outdoor setting; someone really should created a sculpture garden composed exclusively of her giant arachnids. A couple of the children in the Sculpture Garden regarded this work with unease, but most of them were fascinated by it.

As I was walking through the Sculpture Garden, I kept hearing a rooster crowing. At first, I thought that it was an audio recording associated with one of the sculptures, but I was wrong: a rooster and a chicken -- gone feral, perhaps – were rooting around in the shrubbery behind Seymour Lipton’s Cosmos (1973) . . .

. . . which is pictured above.

George Segal’s Three Figures and Four Benches (1979) has been positioned carefully: the figures are contemplating the other artworks and the landscaping of the Sculpture Garden, and the vacant benches invite viewers to rest and do the same.

Alison Star’s Travelin’ Light (1999) honors victims of terror and violence. Although depicted in a tortured position, the figure is formally dressed and carries itself in a formal, dignified manner. Inspired by Japanese purification rites that involve the ringing of bells, Star made the figure a bell that can be rung by pulling a chain on its back.

After I left the Sculpture Garden, I started walking down Esplanade Avenue, which runs past City Park all the way down to the Mississippi River, into the uppermost reaches of the Esplanade Ridge Historic District. This part of the district sits a few feet above sea level and was spared the worst of the post-Katrina flooding. However, other portions of the district were badly flooded and are still struggling to recover. (As was so often the case, the flooding was most severe in areas that were home to poor and working-class people of color. All of New Orleans suffered as a result of Katrina, but those hit hardest were generally those least able to recover from the blow.)

I turned onto Moss Street, which abuts Bayou St. John, the site of the earliest settlement in the area: Canadians who came down the Mississippi River began building here in 1708, ten years before the founding of what is now New Orleans. The area was initially home to indigo plantations, and a number of grand 18th and early 19th century plantation homes survive.

During the 19th century, the area's population swelled. In the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, affluent Creoles (i.e., Louisiana-born descendants of French and Spanish colonists) determined to show up the Americans who settled the Garden District built grand homes on and around Esplanade Avenue. After the Civil War, the area attracted wealthy New Orleanians of varied backgrounds and people of more modest means who built smaller homes on parcels of subdivided plantation land.

At one point, Bayou St. John was a navigable waterway connected to Lake Ponchartrain, and the Carondolet Canal, which was built in the 1790s and filled in a few decades ago, connected the bayou to the Mississippi River. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many visitors to New Orleans entered the city via Bayou St. John. Now, however, it serves as a resting place for egrets, herons, ducks, and other birds and as a tranquil recreational area for area residents.

The Pitot House, a plantation home built ca. 1800, sits opposite Bayou St. John on Moss Street. However, according to the owner of a neighboring property who came out and talked to me when he saw me taking pictures of the area, the house was moved several hundred feet in order to make way for a new school building; much to his dismay, the move required the sacrifice of the playground on which he and other children who grew up in the neighborhood had played.

This helpful gentleman -- and a passing letter carrier who actually stopped his mail truck to give me pointers -- also directed me to other noteworthy houses on the same block.

The home at 1342 Moss Street, which was built for √Čvariste Blanc and his family in 1834, is now the rectory of the Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church.

The home at 1300 Moss Street was built ca. 1785, and the locals refer to it as the “Spanish Custom House” because it dates from the time of Spanish rule; however, there is no firm evidence it was ever used as a custom house. It was probably built for Don Santiago Lloreins, whose plantation encompassed the land in this area, and it is one of the oldest extant buildings in the city of New Orleans.

I then returned to Esplanade Avenue and started walking toward the Mississippi River.

Many of the homes along Esplanade Avenue are modest, but most of them are very well -- and very colorfully -- maintained.

The Luling Mansion, which is situated on Leda Street just off Esplanade and which I discovered quite by accident, differs quite markedly from most Italianate structures in New Orleans. It was built after the Civil War in the style of a Renaissance palazzo for Florence Luling, who made his fortune selling turpentine during the Union occupation of New Orleans. The Luling family, which had lived in the Garden District prior to having this home built, found that their ornate new home was a source of tragedy: both of Florence Luling’s young sons drowned in the nearby Bayou St. John. In 1871, the family sold the house and left New Orleans forever. Given this sad history, the house’s current forlorn state somehow seems appropriate; however, it was recently used as a film set for the remake of Night of the Demons (no doubt a timeless classic) and is being renovated.

This ornate Queen Anne home at 2809 Esplanade rivals anything in the Garden District. Note the black-and-gold fleur-de-lis flags, which are everywhere in New Orleans these days. This city must have gone absolutely wild on Super Bowl Sunday.

This Victorian gem at 2453 Esplanade is one of the few homes in the neighborhood that has a mansard roof. This house was originally one of a matching pair of homes, but the other home was torn down some time ago.

The French painter Edgar Degas stayed with his Creole relatives, the Mussons, in this home at 2306 Esplanade for approximately 6 months in 1872-1873. He produced several noteworthy paintings during his time in New Orleans. It should be noted that this house, which is now a bed-and-breakfast, has been altered extensively. At the time the Musson family lived here, it was a center-hall double gallery home. Some years after they left, part of the house was torn down, rendering it a side-hall house.

It was starting to get a bit late, so I headed back to the French Quarter and had dinner at the Chartres House Cafe, which is one of the few restaurants in the area that offers multiple vegetarian options. Its vegetarian muffaletta is tasty (and big enough for two people!) and it introduced me to the joy that is Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan.

I really enjoyed my time in New Orleans, even though it was painfully apparent that I'm only beginning to grasp what makes this extraordinary city so special. The Society of American Archivists is returning to the Crescent City in 2013, but I sure hope I'll be back before then.

6 comments: said...

I'm tollin'ya...
if'ya lived here
you'd already still live here...
Anyway, thanks for another great post. We got you hangin'on da'Ladda.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

I don'know how that happened that "y'all said" thingy.
We are
yer'ho'so humble Editilla
New Orleans Ladder
We also hung y'all onto our list of Stitch'hikas. Rock of L'Archivista!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that wonderful tour...really appreciate the work you put into your blog. Laura (Web Archive Team, Library of Congress)

Whalehead King said...

I was in New Orleans two weeks ago and also walked Esplande. Thanks for the pictures. I wish I was back. Soon....

Heatherbell said...

I found your blog while searching for pictures of City Park. I am a NOLA native - relocated to Baton Rouge after Katrina. I'm sorry the museum was closed - I hope you get to tour it on your next visit, it really is beautiful. I used to sneak away on my lunch hour just to walk through on particularly hectic days! I was touched when I read that the Postman and St. John neighbor stopped to answer your questions and give you additional tips. That's the NOLA I love!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great photo of Storyland and City Park. I played there often in the 60s while parent attended Tulane.